Tight-lipped Furniture

The furniture of the wealthy is usually quite easy to date. The rich are, after all, the ones who can afford elaboration, ornamentation and experimentation.

And thanks to pattern books, museums, researchers and wealthy furniture collectors, we actually know a lot about the high styles of furniture, from Sheraton to Chippendale, and Hepplewhite to Federal.

But when you look at furniture for the lowborn, it can be difficult to assign a date of construction without invasive archaeological techniques. Why? Well there are a lot of furniture forms that have remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

These are simple pieces with little ornament. They are usually made from common materials. And yet, the survivors are well-built, well-proportioned and have a grace that in my book exceeds any bonnet-top highboy.

This is the furniture that I have been immersed in for almost two years now in preparation for a book on what I’m calling the “furniture of necessity.” I’ve been trying to identify different forms of furniture that have remained unchanged for 200 years or more.

And while books have been helpful, the biggest gold mine has been results from auction houses that do not specialize in the high-style stuff. And it’s the data sheets from these auctioneers that are of particular interest. In addition to listing the dimensions, materials and provenance, the auction house will usually try to assign a date range for the piece.

With the high-style pieces, this is usually straightforward – unless the piece is a fake. But auctioneers from all walks of life tend to struggle when dating these low-style pieces. For example: One auctioneer estimated that a six-board chest he was selling was made sometime between 1800 and 1950.

That particular guy might be a moron when it comes to dating furniture. But I found that even larger auction houses can have difficulty dating pieces such as six-board chests. They might date a chest such as the one shown above as being built between 1800 and 1850. And if you know anything about the history of furniture, you know that that was a tumultuous time, which should make the piece easy to date.

As part of my research, I’ve been redrawing these antique pieces in SketchUp, which is a way of removing the patina and wear from a piece so you can see its form without being assaulted by marks of its age. The results have been interesting.

When was the piece above built? It measures 40″ long, 18-1/2″ deep and 24″ tall. It’s poplar. But was it made in 1770 or 1870? Or is it modern? Does the date of its construction change the way you evaluate its design?

I don’t have the answers – just the will to dig deeper into this topic.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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9 Responses to Tight-lipped Furniture

  1. rob campbell says:

    I assume there are many clues hidden in the hinges and fasteners, although getting a good view of the nails may be difficult. How common were cut nails in the homemade furniture of the 1950s? Finishes would be another clue; if there were an easy way to spot or test for polyurethane, that would automatically get you into the 20th century, no? Was it in the 1950s that fully-machined furniture became the standard for homemade items? I wonder what lack of plane tracks on the bottom etc would mean for dating. When would electric sanding have taken over? I know none of this is news to you, just thinking out loud…

    • Joshua Klein says:

      Rob,

      The complicated part about authentication of antique furniture is that, with respect to furniture building technology, presence of any particular technique helps to confirm that is wasn’t made before a certain time but not later. As you are well aware my hand tool woodworking friend, any person from any time can use exclusively traditional techniques and materials.
      One more factor is if the sides, lid, and bottom are original, look at the size of the boards. The 18th century cabinetmaker didn’t bother with joining up a bunch of 6″ wide boards to make a side. But again, the presence of wide boards confirms nothing by itself either. Old boards are often used to make up new pieces and old pieces occasionally have parts replaced.
      Also, the thing about finishes is that it has always been very common for people to refinish their furniture. Even a piece that was made 200 years ago could be stripped, belt-sanded, and goobered up with urethane.
      All this being said, furniture connoisseurship is a holistic discipline to be sure. It requires bringing all the factors in together and making a determination based on the whole picture. Just my two cents…

  2. shavemaker says:

    I also wonder at the proportions – have you found that those items that appeal beyond their years have, in fact, been built close to a ‘golden’ or well-worn proportional system? Things that are designed properly often just look ‘right’ proportionally – even before the style, ornamentation, or lack there of is taken into account. I’d be interested to examine that – or at least to have you examine that aspect too Chris.

  3. Michael says:

    Furniture of necessity- sounds like excellent foundation skills training. Get the form and proportions right, and learn to fluff it up for the flavour of the day once you are proficient. I’m looking forward to this book- it sounds like “All the stuff a I should make for my own home” as I gain experience in the craft.

  4. Sean says:

    “Furniture of necessity” sounds kind of dire and austere. These forms seem to be driven more by an air practicality, pragmatism, folk or country values, and do-it-yourself anarchism, if you will. I understand that “need” can drive one to do it oneself, and often demands that one do it as elaborate as necessary, and no more, because time is limited. That said, I don’t think folks in their own times thought in these terms. They just needed a table or a chest and either made one in their barn with the simple tools they had or went to the local one-off furniture maker who made something straightforward and time tested, mostly because time was money and no one had the money to pay extra for ornaments or new designs – they just wanted a stout, well-built piece that would last.

  5. joecrafted says:

    As a former archaeologist I can tell you that the toughest items to date with a tight date range are the utility items, be they pottery, stone tools, or (in this case) furniture. If you find a corrugated utility pottery sherd in the american southwest, you can give it a nice tight date range of 1100-1500 AD. Good luck dating a piece of chert shaped as a scraper or a cobble of river sandstone used to grind corn. But if you found a piece of Glaze III pottery (decorative), you could be pretty sure it was made between 1425 and 1490 AD. Think car fins or skirt length.

  6. don2laughs says:

    I really like the way you are going with this, Chris! The ‘200 year’ focal pocket could really help us own some truly American adoptions and adaptations unique to us as well as help refine the basics of purpose vs prestige. Our Founding Fathers were the most prestigios Americans of the day and the furniture they left certainly evidenced that but they represented the masses of ‘practical’, hard working and frivolous countrymen. I’d appreciate the opportunity to embrace the legacy of those ‘masses’ through identifying what they deemed ‘of necessity’. At 66 I’m too old for bandwagons but certainly enthusiastic about defining purpose. You’ve helped me convert to(predominate) use of hand tools and now am refining my woodworking ‘purpose’ to producing useful rather than gaudy pieces for my heirs.
    Thanks for your influence
    Don

  7. rmcnabb says:

    Look forward to this book! We don’t all want to build highboys.

  8. Rascal says:

    You go Chris! I’m looking forward to this book. I second all the above comments too. I’ve said it before, I want LAP to stay in business so if you publish it, I’m ordering it. I’ll have the most eclectic woodworking library extant! (Now I need to wash my mouth out with beer after a sentence like that!) Uh, I do plan to swallow. 🙂 Sorry, couldn’t resist!

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